The first year of residency has never been easy. The jump one must make from medical student to doctor feels insurmountable in those early months of July. And the trend beyond that is not linear. It gets easier some weeks and harder during others. But for those of us that began our training as residents in the middle of the pandemic, the summit we have been tasked to climb is a new one entirely.
When I walk into the hospital at 6:30 AM a woman armed with a thermometer scans my wrist and says “Be well. Stay safe.” I don’t know her name or what she would be doing if COVID hadn’t happened but her words always feel warm and personal, especially early in the morning, when the day is so unknown. As a resident and the most inexperienced member of the medical team, I always enter the lobby with a little bit of fear. By this point in the year, we have all had patients who were stable, crash unpredictably. So when the woman at the front desk takes my temperature and says, “Be well” what I hear is it’s hard, take care of yourself, do your best. I think I would need to hear these words, even if it wasn’t the middle of the pandemic, but in these times there is also something literal about them. Before you rush into the room, before you get in line for chest compressions, take an extra minute to grab your face shield. Adjust your mask. Stay safe.
I don’t hear “have a good day” much anymore. And on Friday “have a good weekend,” never really makes sense since our “weekends” only last one day. It is a period of time just long enough to do laundry, call a friend and pick up groceries and if you need to, cry.
The world has been a lonely place during these past months. For the many of us that have moved to different cities or states with the intention of relying on our co-interns for friendship, we have found those relationships delayed by the reality around us. The social gatherings that typically happen during orientation were replaced with awkward zoom meetings. And as we entered the fall and winter months, the days grew shorter in accordance with the time and energy we had to pursue new friendships. Amongst the endless list of daily tasks, we have ducked into empty closets or call rooms to cry or to attend virtual therapy appointments. When there isn’t time for that, we just pulled up our masks a little higher and let the edge wick the tears out of our eyes.
It would be nice if all the bad things in the world could take a break while we focused on getting through a pandemic and intern year. But that is not the case. The break-ups, deaths in and outside of the hospital, fatigue, and sleep deprivation visit residents like they have never heard of social distancing. And so more than ever we need people to lean on, to complain to, to process our new and challenging experiences with, and to make us feel less alone. It is a difficult ask though because that requires time, something that we have discovered is extraordinarily rare and precious.
In this world, I have found often myself repeating the woman’s mantra of “Be well. Stay safe,” as I part ways with my colleagues at the end of the day. It feels more personal than “have a good night” and is a subtle nod to this trying and complex journey we are on as residents. “Have a good night” is polite. “Stay safe,” says “I want you to be ok.” Sometimes we will turn in the same direction as we exit the revolving doors. In the minutes before our paths separate, we begin to get to know each other.
As the months have gone by, I have found a small group of people to sip coffee with on my days off. We trade stories and laugh about the things that are hard. In their company, I begin to settle into this city and role that are still so new. When the afternoon comes and we can no longer procrastinate on doing laundry or grocery shopping, we turn toward our apartments with a familiar chorus of “Stay safe!”
Following our most recent meeting, I stepped out onto the sidewalk, surprised by a new flurry of snowflakes. So much had happened between last July and now. Leaves fell, the weather shifted. I had gotten used to watching the sun rise and set from the inside of hospital rooms. As I continued down the street, I realized that this was the first time this month that I was able to feel daylight on my skin. And in that moment, I felt grateful and well.